The world of advertising before mass media is a completely different world from today’s, with big-name influencers and big data stalking us on every landing page until we surrender and purchase that damned dress we can scarce afford. Well, this luxury wasn’t afforded to ad agencies in the 1800s, but there’s loads we can learn from them. Adverts are crafted to be compelling enough to evoke an emotion strong enough to persuade action. This involves appealing to the hopes and dreams of the target audience and in turn, appealing to their desire to part with their money. Never an easy task.
This exhibition showcases adverts dating from 1830s-1960s, including copies of the first local newspaper. Through tracing more than a century’s worth of over 400 documents, I felt like I had gained somewhat rarified perspectives about the audience, attitude changes, triggers and reception.
Singapore’s humble beginnings as a thriving port that afforded access to companies afar, meaning our cosmopolitanism shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet the exhibition brought to the fore minute details some of us may we have taken for granted all our lives. One was that Planta originated from the Netherlands during the 1870s, and that BATA (Buy And Throw Away) our go-to for primary-school-shoes has Czech roots. Cold Storage is also the first supermarket that landed on our shores, and for that, we have to thank the pampered Westerners and their longing for fresh imports from Australia and beyond.
For if Samsui women’s principles were anything to go by in that era, austerity was most likely observed, and indulgence a rare occurrence for locals largely still mired in poverty. Diasporic enclaves had strengthened our interconnectivity with the rest of the world.
In the post-war golden age of twentieth-century America—dubbed by the poetic Mark Twain as the Gilded Age—with a surge in wealth, elites paraded around in full view their consumer products like cars and household appliances. The advertising medium had entered most households by then, and encouraged the competitive pursuit of leisure activities and extravagant products as symbols of comfort and upward social mobility.
Through adverts, we suddenly find the need for things we hadn’t even known about (usually pricey luxuries).
A host of information has been written on exposure effects, source memories and deja vu. Yes, advertising is a science in itself with far-reaching implications because of its undeniable ability to introduce new cultural values and/or work to subvert old ones. They introduce fresh and “forward-looking” perspectives to us, whilst rendering older items and ideas obsolete.
Yet these all largely depends on the target audience, the reception and their sensitivities. For example, post-war prosperity would see a larger mass of positive, forward-looking consumers so agencies would do well with futuristic portrayals of whole families and idealistic notions of peace and harmony.
National Library Building, Level 10, Gallery;
Not into exhibitions? Here’s a crop of Feb markets for you to spend your money at.